Motown M 1044 (B), June 1963
B-side of A Breath Taking Guy
What do we make of this, then? I’ve never quite known how to fit this into anything I ever learned about either the Supremes, or about Motown in general. It’s just completely inexplicable.
Well, alright, it’s not totally inexplicable – the Supremes’ previous single, My Heart Can’t Take It No More, also written by Clarence Paul, had flirted with something approaching a sort of country and western sound, so it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that Motown had commissioned more stuff in the same vein just in case the record was a hit and the Supremes became known as “the country R&B girl group” – but even then, this still makes very little sense at all.
A silly midtempo vignette (very similar stylistically to the Vandellas’ You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True with its clomping rhythm and plodding tempo) about how the narrator is in love with a banjo player who has the neighbourhood kids entranced with his playing. Which… okay, fine, silly concept, but let’s see where they go with it. “He’s a groovy swingin’ guy, with a rock and roll banjo band!” the girls exclaim together at the start. To which the reaction must surely be: “No he isn’t. Be honest, he’s not, though, is he?” Still, the girls plough on regardless, Diana Ross determined to convincingly play the part of a woman in love with a man because he plays the banjo well. It’s fluffy and nonsensical and silly, and sounds like a really ill-fated and condescending attempt by two older male writers to catch the rhythms and foibles of teenage girl talk.
Weirdly, for me the overall effect of this first bit is visual rather than aural; I can’t help but imagine Diana Ross – Diana Ross – seething with rage at being forced to sing this patronising nonsense, but too powerless to kick up a fuss, and too desperate for a hit record to consider not going along with it.
And then, enter Cranford Nix.
Mr Nix (senior – his late son, Cranford Junior, was a cult punk rock figure) was a top bluegrass banjo player, who somehow ended up in a Motown recording session after what one can only assume was a frantic brainstorm or a series of increasingly ill-considered bets. This song appears to have been written for him, rather than him being drafted in as a recognisable banjo star to do a part on this record. The fact that rather than cut a proper bluegrass number on Nix, Motown instead shackled him together with the Supremes – probably, in hindsight, the least appropriate choice they could possibly have made – just shows how little the company knew about how best to handle either the group or the banjo virtuoso.
Because, really, what business does a banjo player have on a Supremes record? Or, alternatively, what business do the Supremes have on a banjo record? The marriage absolutely, 100% does not work in any way. Apart from anything else, Nix’ frantic bluegrass playing is in a completely different, three-beat time to the leaden 4/4 R&B stomp of the backing track. Coupled with the fact Nix doesn’t actually do anything in terms of a tune, just some frenetic and difficult fingerwork, his parts feel incongruous and tacked on. (I mean, more incongruous than a banjo on a Supremes track in the first place.) It’s reduced to the level of just being an annoying noise, and the Supremes’ attempts to convince the listener we’re all having a brilliant time listening to it are grating in the extreme.
This is a complete embarrassment, and were it not for the existence of the truly wretched (He’s) Seventeen (which, I’ve just noticed, starts with parentheses too – maybe there’s something in that!), this would be the worst record the Supremes ever made. Listen to it once out of morbid curiosity, and then wipe it from your mind as best you can.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“A Breath Taking Guy”
“What Goes Up Must Come Down”
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